The Sioux-Pacific artistic connection

By Dionne Christian , Dionne Christian

Artist and musician Juliana Brown Eyes-Kaho uses art to bring about positive social change.
Artist and musician Juliana Brown Eyes-Kaho uses art to bring about positive social change.

Artist and musician Juliana Brown Eyes-Kaho was one of the first 10 people arrested at Standing Rock when she joined those demonstrating against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Tempting as it was to rejoin the protest, Brown Eyes-Kaho stayed away, knowing it could hurt her ability to raise awareness in other ways, including visiting New Zealand to take up the Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust 2017 Artist Residency.

A member of the Oglala Sioux tribe, a sister tribe to the people of Standing Rock, she believes that whether it's in her home state of South Dakota or New Zealand, indigenous people around the world face similar issues and can learn from one another.

Sharing knowledge is one of the reasons Brown Eyes-Kaho, 26, was keen to visit New Zealand. A photographer and bass player in Scatter Your Own - the band she started with her husband, Scotti Clifford - she uses art and culture to highlight indigenous issues and bring about positive change.

The top scholar, who once received a scholarship from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, was originally studying medicine but realised her heart wasn't in it.

A self-taught musician, she wanted to be an artist but the change in direction was a shock to her family.

"We come from poverty so they want everyone who can to go into the medicine or law," she explains. "My dad told me, 'well, be prepared to be broke', and I said, 'I might be broke but at least I'll be happy'."

Nevertheless, she's rapidly gaining a reputation as an artist/musician on the rise. Brown Eyes-Kaho is one of a number of Native Americans who feature in the Red Road Project, a collaboration between Italian photographer Carlotta Cardana and US writer Danielle SeeWalker.

The duo is photographing and interviewing Native Americans about how culture shapes their lives and how they're becoming role models in their communities. The photos have been exhibited around the world and featured in several media outlets.

But part of Brown Eyes-Kaho's motivation for wanting to visit New Zealand was more personal. Raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, she knew little about her paternal grandfather.

As an orphaned teenager, her grandmother travelled from South Dakota to San Francisco at the height of Flower Power. When Vana Brown Eyes returned to Pine Ridge, she was pregnant and determined to raise the child herself. She never told her child's father he had a son and shared few details with her extended family about him other than he was Tongan.

"Everyone else in the family is tall and lean; dad is like a big, muscular Tongan-looking guy," Brown Eyes-Kaho says.

When Vana died last March, Juliana's dad, Julian, decided to find out more about his father's heritage. He did an ancestry.com DNA test and discovered he was likely to be related to people with the surname Kaho.

From there, Brown Eyes-Kaho used Facebook to message Kaho family members until she eventually found her grandfather, Toloafe Richard Kaho. The family was reunited at an emotional meeting in San Francisco last year and Brown Eyes-Kaho was promptly invited to Auckland to meet numerous aunts, uncles and cousins she never knew she had.

"It was overwhelming and I was really, really happy. It has felt like a fairy tale. In the mid-west, if I ever saw any Polynesian-looking people, I'd want to run up to them and ask if they might know my family," she says.

While here, she spoke out about Standing Rock and met some of those involved in the Bastion Point occupation of 1977-78. A group of Maori had earlier performed a haka at Standing Rock in support of those protesting about the building of the US$3.7 billion pipeline, which will carry crude oil nearly 2000km through Iowa, Illinois and North and South Dakota to refineries in the Midwest.

Brown Eyes-Kaho describes the haka as a major spur for the Standing Rock protesters, who are concerned that the pipeline crosses sacred land, was approved by the US government without adequate consultation and could contaminate local water supplies.

When she visited Auckland, she had already applied for the Tautai residency, urged on by a friend who had undertaken one.

The residency is for an artist outside New Zealand and is offered every two years, providing the recipient with return airfares, accommodation and a stipend. Described as the "gift of time", artists get to meet and interact with the local art community, visit galleries, libraries and public institutions for research and to participate in events in Auckland during February and March.

Brown Eyes-Kaho has been exploring Tongan arts and thinking about what a fusion of her two cultures might look like.

"I'm excited to explore the possibilities of interweaving my Lakota knowledge of traditional artwork with Tongan practices of the tapa cloth, to learn the meanings and importance of the symbols, to feel the pride as I wear my own tapa cloth someday. I feel fulfilled and blessed and rich. My grandmother taught me how rich our Native American culture is and now I feel I have doubled that."

- NZ Herald

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